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NW Fishletter #378, February 5, 2018

[2] Judge OKs Spill Plan for Lower Columbia and Snake River Dams

The eight federal dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers will spill as much water as allowed under state water-quality rules, which could trigger a rate increase from the BPA.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon approved the spill plan on Jan. 8, and barring an order from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the new spill regime will begin on April 3 on the lower Snake, and April 10 on the lower Columbia. The plans remain in place until June 15 on the lower Columbia and June 20 on the lower Snake.

Spilling more water could trigger BPA's recently enacted spill surcharge, which kicks in when lost revenues from spilling water reach $5 million.

Kieran Connolly, BPA VP of generation and asset management, said in testimony in Bonneville's 2017 rate case that lost revenue was estimated to total $80 million over fiscal years 2018 and 2019, corresponding to 815 MW worth of lost sales during the April-June period of each year.

Connolly said in testimony that the extra spill would have two primary effects. First, it would reduce sales of Bonneville surplus energy on the wholesale market, which would require additional revenues from statutory preference customers to cover costs.

In addition the reduced generation could also lead to occasions in which low streamflows and high power demand would require Bonneville to purchase additional power from the open market, "at potentially high prices," to fulfill its preference-customer obligations, Connolly said.

"It is very frustrating; it's not known whether it may harm or help fish, but it is certain that it will raise electricity costs and hamper the ability to operate the system," Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, said in a statement emailed to NW Fishletter.

Simon's Jan. 8 order also denied a second motion by Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association for an evidentiary hearing on spill and fish transportation. CSRIA asked the court for the hearing, which Simon denied because he considered it a motion for reconsideration of his April 2017 spill order.

Under the new spill regime, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will allow spill up to the total dissolved gas (TDG) level restriction, along with earlier PIT-tag monitoring of juvenile salmon.

For Washington dams, the TDG must not exceed an average of 115 percent as measured in the forebays of the next downstream dams and must not exceed an average of 120 percent as measured in the tailraces of each dam.

The Oregon TDG criteria says spill must be reduced when the average TDG concentration of the 12 highest hourly measurements per calendar day exceeds 120 percent of saturation in monitoring stations at the tailraces of McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams. Spill must be reduced when instantaneous TDG levels exceed 125 percent of saturation for any two hours during the 12 highest hourly measurements per calendar day at monitoring stations in the tailraces of those four dams.

Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said spilling more water will increase carbon emissions in the state, and is contrary to Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals.

"On one hand, the State of Oregon is pushing an ambitious cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon while on the other insisting on a 'spill program' in the Columbia River System that will generate 840,000 tons of carbon by reducing hydropower production. We need a consistent policy," said Case in an email.

The plan was jointly submitted to Simon in October, after months of negotiations between federal defendants and plaintiff environmental groups and the State of Oregon.

In January, plaintiff conservation groups and Oregon filed motions for additional spill and to stop capital spending unrelated to safety at the four dams. The Nez Perce Tribe supported the proposed injunction for increased spill.

The motions came in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. [01-640], the continuing litigation over federal dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The federal defendants, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service), intervenor-defendant Northwest RiverPartners and numerous other intervenor groups opposed the National Wildlife Federation motions.

The plaintiffs asked for the spill injunction to start in spring 2017, but Simon ruled at the time more planning was needed to avoid unintended outcomes.

"There is no real scientific dispute that voluntary spill to the level required by the court will avoid harm to juvenile salmon," Todd True, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement. "In addition, this spill order has been carefully crafted to avoid any unintended negative consequences to navigation and other resources. In fact, it is very likely that spill at higher levels would afford additional salmon survival improvements."

Federal defendants argued that the decision to increase spill was problematic because changes in flows can create eddies or other issues that might obstruct both juvenile and adult migration and negatively affect navigation through locks.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said her group was "extremely disappointed that BPA's customers, who are expected to foot the bill for added spill costs, were not included or consulted in the discussions between the federal agencies and the plaintiffs on spill."

"We don't support the outcome because it's clear from the agencies own modeling that there is no added survival benefits to listed salmon from more spill but significant costs," she told NW Fishletter in an email. "This is a massive misuse of funds at a time when BPA is struggling to stay competitive and will do nothing to help salmon."

In June, the federal agencies appealed Simon's ruling to the 9th Circuit. The court has promised to expedite review of the case. -Steve Ernst

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Contributing Editor: Steve Ernst
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